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Posted in: American Bride

Published on Sep 27, 2013 by Julia Klein

Published by The Chicago Tribune

An American Bride in Kabul

Reviewed in The Chicago Tribune

Imagine marrying the man you adore, only to find yourself locked away in an Afghan harem, where your sweetheart alternately ignores, insults, hits and sexually assaults you.

Then imagine that years later, long after you've contrived your escape to America and won an annulment, he flees his country and becomes one of your closest and dearest friends.

This is the bizarre, almost unbelievable story that second-wave feminist leader Phyllis Chesler recounts in her memoir, "An American Bride in Kabul" — a book that is alternately enthralling (when she sticks to her personal experience) and irritating (when she wanders too far afield).

Chesler, an emerita professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island, is the author of the 1972 classic, "Women and Madness." Also among her 14 books are studies of child custody, women and money and women's "inhumanity to women" — the last partly inspired by her harsh treatment in Kabul.

"I believe that my American feminism began in Afghanistan," Chesler writes. In 1961, during her sojourn, the country still was laboring under what Chesler calls "gender apartheid." Despite efforts at modernization, many women wore burqas that covered them from head to toe, and women's lives were largely controlled by men.

This was an extraordinarily weird and inappropriate setting for an ambitious young woman from a Jewish Orthodox family in Brooklyn. Only a misbegotten mix of romantic love and bad judgment could have gotten her there.

Chesler meets her future husband, Abdul-Kareem, in college, where their attraction (he is Muslim but seemingly secular) has the allure of the forbidden. The scion of a wealthy and prominent family, he is an aspiring film and theater director who encourages her writing and treats her as an equal.

Chesler, still a teenager, envisions a shared life of artistic creation and travel. But once they marry, Abdul-Kareem spirits her back to Afghanistan. There, for some reason, her U.S. passport is confiscated. Her husband installs her behind the high walls of the family compound in Kabul, where his courtly father rules his three wives and their children like a medieval despot.

While Abdul-Kareem leaves each day for work, Chesler remains behind, isolated but with little privacy or intellectual stimulation. Worse, she is half-starved for lack of digestible food (her stomach rebels at anything cooked in foul-smelling ghee) and reduced to begging for canned goods. While some family members are sympathetic, she feels persecuted by her mad-as-a-hatter mother-in-law, an abandoned first wife with grievances of her own.

"She either means to kill me — or to convert me to Islam," Chesler writes. "She is carrying on both agendas at the same time."

Abdul-Kareem does little to help. In fact, as Chesler grows weak and ill, he "embarks on a campaign to impregnate me," as a way of binding her irrevocably to him. She never uses the inflammatory word "rape," but she writes: "I am his wife; we both believe that he has the right to have sex with me and that I do not have the right to say no."

On the cusp of her departure, facilitated by an unexpected ally, Chesler's husband becomes angry and abusive. "Abdul-Kareem calls me a bitch and a whore," she writes. "He hits me — and then he hits me again." He never entirely accepts the break. For years, he writes transatlantic missives filled with threats, promises and proclamations of undying love.

Despite the trauma, or perhaps because of it, Chesler's Afghan adventure left her with an abiding curiosity about the country and the Middle East. Over the years, she reports, Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents have become her "closest intellectual and political companions."

It makes sense that Chesler would want to contextualize her personal experience. But she interrupts her narrative far too often with repetitive digressions about other Western encounters with Afghanistan, as well as disquisitions on the country's history (especially its treatment of women and Jews). One could imagine a skillful fusion of memoir and history, but Chesler isn't an adept enough writer to bring it off.

Her own story takes a surprising twist when Abdul-Kareem, now with a new wife and children, shows up. In Afghanistan, he had risen to be deputy minister of culture, but he fled to the United States just in advance of the Soviet invasion. When he phones Chesler in 1979, she welcomes him like a long-lost friend. "I feel terrible for him," she writes. "I was happy to see him and reconnect."

She even obtains an assignment from the New York Times Magazine to write a story about her ex-husband's escape from Afghanistan. But the material is overwhelming, perhaps because she has not yet fully processed her own trauma. Worrying that the story might hurt rather than help him, she says, she puts it aside. Abdul-Kareem, ever the petty tyrant, responds by threatening to sue her for nonperformance.

Even so, Chesler continues to hold him — and his entire family — close. For all his faults, "he is … courtly, gracious, and strong," she writes, time apparently having blurred the edges of his offenses against her.

And about their unbreakable tie, it seems, he may have been right, after all. "I am still the first wife. As he says, he does not believe in divorce. We remain connected in our own unspoken ways," Chesler writes, expressing a deeply compassionate view of their shared history. It is not a comfortably feminist one, however, and the disjunction is disquieting.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

"An American Bride in Kabul"

By Phyllis Chesler, Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

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